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Keeping The Independent Arts Fluid

By Falk Schreiber

Two months after the Fonds launched the #TakeThat package of measures, managing director Holger Bergmann talks to Falk Schreiber about the programs that have been launched and further needs for the independent theater scene. You can read the whole interview here.

Holger Bergmann and Falk Schreiber sit across from each other at a table. © Björn Frers

Interview Holger Bergmann im Gespräch mit Falk Schreiber

Geschäftsführer Holger Bergmann im Gespräch mit Falk Schreiber über die angelaufenen Förderprogramme

With three regular funding programs and four application deadlines in non-pandemic times, the Fonds Darstellende Künste has been promoting independent theater in Germany. In the corona crisis, however, the number of funding programs, application deadlines and, above all, needs have risen steeply: with #TakeThat, as part of the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media’s NEUSTART KULTUR, the fund is supporting the independent performing arts in an exceptional situation.

Holger Bergmann, let's imagine: I am an artist and have a project that, as is typical for the independent scene, is between genres. So if I apply for funding – how does that work? Do I contact you? Do I write an application first?

You do the application online and you can always come back to the form, add to it and, if you have specific questions, we can also look at the form together. We are involved in 100 consultation calls a day and carry out consultations on Zoom, too. There is also our website, which should be pretty much self-explanatory. We have an interest in ensuring that every application that arrives here is one that can result in a decision, rather than one that cannot be decided upon because something hasn’t been completed properly. That’s our main goal. Then, of course, we want to make sure each application/project is seeking support from the right funding program. We don't do much more than that, after which the applications go to our advisory board, and they decide when they’ve examined the content of the projects submitted.

But specifically: Suppose I did the cost and financing plan badly? Or I applied for a program that’s not the right fit and another would be much better? Are there forms of consultation? What if I’ve applied to the wrong program? Will my application be thrown straight out?

In the past, this consultation happened 100 percent of the time. We actually checked with everyone who submitted an application. In the current review process, we have received around 4,000 applications for the #TakeThat program and there are still three other programs running with further rounds of applications also planned. Given the mass of applications to be handled, we have to draw the line here and we will check for one or two errors, no more than three. We’re not talking about minor details, but basic components that are missing.

With eleven programs alone under the umbrella of #TakeThat, the AUTONOM funding program for combining artificial intelligence and performance, GLOBAL VILLAGE LABS for promoting work in rural areas... the Fonds Darstellende Künste is working in an astonishing number of areas! Don't you get bogged down?

Oh, I'm not afraid of getting bogged down, it's about variety in the independent performing arts. And I don't think you can maintain that with simple rules or funding programs, although it would be nice. We try to get as close as possible to certain clusters of the independent scene with this multi-layered approach. We have genre-specific funding — theater for young audiences, theater in public spaces in the sense of street theater, puppetry and object theatre. Then we have a cluster that includes performance, drama and music theater. And we look at how structures are supported and promoted in certain areas. So with the #TakePlace program, you can apply for structural projects that create some sustainability. For example, you would like to get EDP equipment. Or you want to certify your building according to environmental requirements — things that have a structural effect in that you will have fewer costs afterwards. Something like that is relatively difficult in the arts, because the budget’s guiding principle is to never finance something that doesn't actually take place. Fortunately, we have an agile scene that makes an effort to ensure that a lot does take place. It doesn't stand still.

During the pandemic, though, politicians have explicitly called for a halt.

Exactly. But the scene is doing a lot right now to keep things happening. It's certainly not always a satisfying struggle with formats and working methods, but you can see that something is being attempted all the time, that something is being tried out. Certain things were possible in the summer in urban space. For example, Kris Verdonck used a lifting platform to get to window height to present his art. Certainly, the whole of Germany’s theater can’t use that kind of format, but possibilities are being considered: what is the fundamental future of art and culture? Or: an idea that can be discarded is a good idea! I find this laboratory approach important – to an extent because of my own work.

You used to run the Ringlokschuppen production house in Mülheim an der Ruhr and curate festivals. Does the fact that you come from a theater background yourself help you with the Fonds Darstellende Künste?


It's not that common.

Oh, it’s not unusual either, to be honest. Christine Peters was Artistic Director at Frankfurt's Mousonturm, and now she heads theater funding at the Kunststiftung NRW. After a certain period working on the independent scene, one can experience a degree of fatigue in relation to working contexts and conditions. Change has a positive energy. State theaters are ahead of us in that respect. They deal with the positive energy of change differently than the independent scene. There is so much heart and soul in the independent scene and change is often seen as a lack of passion. We know from amour fou that sometimes it can be just the opposite.

In recent years, the Fonds Darstellende Künste has grown massively. There has been an increase in the number of staff, and the basic budget has also been significantly increased.

The fund started in 1986 with a grant that was still 800,000 marks at the time. My predecessor, Günter Jeschonnek, put a great deal of commitment and energy into turning it into part of the independent cultural scene. It was a time of innovation, of experimentation, in the independent scene as the new generation of great art. When I took over the fund in 2016, it moved from the Federal Cultural Foundation directly to the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media. And now it's time to start considering fundamental issues: what's next for the Fonds Darstellende Künste? I think we have to make it clear that applicants shouldn’t come to us in the manner of supplicants when they apply. We develop programs that have a certain impact on the scene, both on the artists and on the funding landscape. We have already done this with the first production-independent initiation funding and with some of the most recent special programs.

Does the increase in the size of the Fonds Darstellende Künste mean an increased appreciation of the independent performing arts?

In principle, federalism is responsible for the promotion of culture. The federal government has only limited funding options when it comes to art of national importance. And yes, the independent performing arts are of national interest, because they do not work in a purely localized way. Of course, theater is always location-bound, as a place where an audience comes, but the independent scene produces with a view to nationwide and also international relevance. The municipalities often ask why they should support networks or festivals that show a program in which artists from a neighboring federal state appear? Also, the treasurers often find it difficult when their "own" municipal theater tours somewhere else or when guests come from the neighboring town. They are quick to say: "They have to participate financially!” Here we have a scene that is not constrained by local or regional limitations. In this case, the federal government has a different responsibility and I believe we have succeeded in making that clear.

When I talk to people from the independent scene about their work practice, I often hear: "Everything is going quite well, but we’re not able to plan ahead! If something goes wrong, we'll be left with nothing!" The subsidies you outlined sound useful, but they haven't really caught on.

That’s because they have to be taken up federally by state and local funding bodies. We can create examples that can be used to argue the case, or that can be used to develop co-financing. In 2009, under my predecessor, the fund developed three-year conceptual funding, the first funding to stretch over a longer period, in collaboration with Hamburg. This didn’t exist in the federal states before. In the meantime, it has become more common. An important task is to accompany and support groups that are not yet at an established level, but are beginning to produce across the federal states and carry out guest performances. The security of planning ahead has be one of the next important goals.

We are looking into the future positively and assume that the corona pandemic will be more or less under control in a few years - what will happen next with cultural funding for the independent scene? And what role will the Fonds Darstellende Künste play then?

(Holger Bergmann picks up a glass ball from his desk and stares intently into it) The future is one of those things. We always try to plan a lot, but we never know what it will look like. One thought is that an element such as work process funding will prevail over project funding. We will say: we now support working groups of artists who are working on one project, or on two projects, or even on no specific project at all. Perhaps we will see more of such funding in the future. We will invest in the richness of ideas and types of art rather than in a stage set with language, acting, performance and song. That could happen, but something else might occur, too. We will consciously promote what has always been a core issue in the independent performing arts: walking a tightrope between different areas, opening up to interdisciplinary art forms. As a federal funding agency, we are only a very small funding unit; most of the money flows into the scene via the states and the municipalities – but we can support artists and make them visible, which makes a difference.

The interview was conducted by Falk Schreiber on November 12, 2020.